The UK’s offer of visa and settlement routes for residents of Hong Kong Contents

2The introduction of the new visa route

24.Successive governments have resisted calls to change the legal rights of BN(O)s, arguing that to do so would risk undermining the commitments made under the UK-China Joint Declaration on Hong Kong.26

25.When announcing the new visa route the Foreign Secretary, Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, said that “This is a special, bespoke, set of arrangements developed for the unique circumstances we face and in light of our historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong”. He said there would be no limit on numbers and that there would be a simple application process.27

26.In a foreword to the policy statement,28 the Home Secretary Rt Hon Priti Patel MP said that “The decision of the Chinese Government to impose its national security legislation on Hong Kong is a matter of deep regret to this Government” and a “clear breach” of the Joint Declaration which “cannot be ignored”:

Now that China, through its actions, has changed the circumstances that BN(O) citizens find themselves in, it is right that we should change the entitlements which are attached to BN(O) status. I have decided to improve significantly those entitlements, to reassure BN(O) citizens that they have options to live in the UK if they decide that is an appropriate choice for them.

She noted that a specific policy had been designed due to the “unique position” of BN(O) citizens in Hong Kong: she emphasised that “It [would] not set a precedent” but was “a proportionate response to the situation which has arisen”.29

BN(O) status and eligibility for the new visa route

27.British National (Overseas) (BN(O)) status was made available in the ten years prior to the handover to people who had British Dependent Territories Citizenship (BDTC) through a connection with Hong Kong. It is not available to those born after 1 July 1997 and, while it is valid for life, this status is not passed on to spouses or children.30 Most BN(O)s are also considered to be Chinese, under Chinese nationality laws.

28.Those with BN(O) status can use a type of British passport and seek consular assistance and protection from UK diplomatic posts apart from in China, Hong Kong or Macao. British nationality law enables BN(O)s to register as British citizens, either on the basis of lawful residence in the UK or by being otherwise stateless (although the operation of Chinese nationality law means most BN(O)s are unlikely to be eligible for British citizenship through this route). They are entitled to visit the UK for up to 6 months at a time without a visa but are subject to immigration controls and do not have a right of abode in the UK.31 32

29.The number of people with BN(O) status is currently believed to number around 2.9 million. The Government’s impact assessment for the new visa route estimated that, including their dependants, those eligible under the new visa route may number approximately 5.4 million Hong Kong residents.

30.While this is a significant number, the impact assessment noted that not all BN(O)s will wish to leave Hong Kong and only a proportion of those who do are likely to come to the UK. It suggested that the numbers arriving in the UK over five years might be between 258,000 and 322,400, with a significant proportion of the group—between 123,000 and 153,700—arriving in the first year.33 We discuss arrivals further at paragraphs 102–105.

Leave outside the rules

31.Prior to the launch of the new visa route the UK Government also gave Border Force officials discretion to grant six months’ immigration leave ‘outside the rules’ to individuals with BN(O) status and their accompanying dependents arriving in the UK before 31 January 2021, who were not eligible for entry to the UK under any existing visa category. Individuals granted leave outside the rules may work and study in the UK but have ‘no recourse to public funds’ conditions on their leave and do not have full access to healthcare without full health insurance.

32.The Government’s October 2020 impact assessment for introduction of the new visa route reported that 2,116 BN(O) citizens and their dependants had been granted Leave Outside the Rules at the border in the three months between 15 July and 14 October. The assessment commented that “this data is not considered to be a reliable proxy for the number that may apply for the Hong Kong BN(O) Visa when it opens in January. However, it does suggest that the number of BN(O) citizens seeking to come to the UK in the short term is unlikely to be at the high end of the scale”.34 More recent Government data suggests that in the region of 12,500 individuals were granted leave outside the rules at the border between 15 July 2020 and 31 March 2021.35 Ministerial authorisation for Border Force to consider granting leave outside the rules to BN(O) status holders and their eligible family members has been extended, most recently until 23:59 on 19 July 2021. The Minister wrote to us that this extension “will ensure BN(O) status holders and their family members who are planning to travel to the UK before applying to the new Hong Kong BN(O) route have enough notice of the end of the LOTR arrangements at the border and avoid confusion arising as a result of extending aspects of the COVID-19 roadmap to 19 July”.36

33.Individuals from Hong Kong are also able to apply to come to the UK through other routes including the youth mobility scheme which offers 1,000 places for applicants from Hong Kong each year (see paragraphs 52–58).37

The new visa route

34.The new Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa was created by a statement of changes to the Immigration Rules which was laid before the House on 22 October 2020. The changes came into effect from 31 January 2021.38

35.The visa provides two routes:

36.There are also qualifying eligibility criteria that applicants under either route must meet. These are that:

There is no English language requirement for the visa, but applicants will be subject to the usual knowledge of English and Life in the UK test requirements if they later choose to apply for permanent settlement.

37.Applicants on the Hong Kong BN(O) visa route will receive up to 5 years’ temporary permission to stay in the UK, which may be granted as a single period of 5 years or as successive periods of 30 months, subject to further application for the second 30 month period. They also have the right to work in the UK and access to education and healthcare. After five years in the UK visa holders may apply for permanent leave to remain, as a precursor to British citizenship, subject to meeting eligibility criteria and paying an application fee. Like other visas, the Hong Kong BN(O) visa has ‘no recourse to public funds’ conditions although visa holders may be able to request access to public funds in exceptional circumstances or if they become destitute.

38.On 23 February the Government launched a smartphone app enabling applicants with certain biometric passports to apply online and submit their biometrics digitally by scanning their passport chip. Applicants who cannot scan their passport chip must attend a visa application centre to enrol their biometric data.40 A biometric enrolment fee of £19.20 is payable.

39.In the 1985 Sino-British joint declaration the UK made a historic commitment to protect the freedom of the people of Hong Kong. Given the grave concerns of Governments, NGOs and human rights experts about the impact of the new security law on Hong Kongers’ freedoms we welcome the Government’s decision to honour this promise through the creation of the British National (Overseas) visa route. This is a substantial and important recognition both of the gravity of the situation in Hong Kong and the commitments made by the UK Government to the people of Hong Kong.

26 House of Commons Library, British National (Overseas) status, 6 May 2021

31 Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa, Commons Library briefing 6 May 2021. The ‘right of abode’ is the right to travel to, and live and work in the UK, free from immigration controls

35 This total is drawn from overlapping Government figures, as no single figure is publicly available. On 29 January 2021 the Home Office reported that approximately 7,000 BN(O) status holders and their dependants were granted LOTR at the border between 15 July and 13 January 2021 (‘Media factsheet: Hong Kong BN(O) Visa route’, 29 January 2021); official statistics show that 5,500 BN(O) and/or HKSAR passport holders were granted LOTR at the border between 1 January and 31 March 2021. (Immigration statistics March 2021). Combined, these totals give 12,500 individuals, but the 13 days’ overlap between the two reports should be noted.

36 Letter from the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration, 21 June 2021

38 HC 395 of 1993–4 as amended by Statement of Changes HC 813, 2019–21

39 Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa, Commons Library briefing 6 May 2021.

Published: 7 July 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement